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Making Sense of Cellular Radiation

About the radiation emitted from screens of mobile devices and the uncertainty surrounding its health impacts

Almost everyone in Israel has a cell phone. The state-of-the-art cell phone is the smartphone which has different features – phone, camera, audio player and more, as well as various kind of applications. There are different kinds of phones, and the common thing to all phones is the radiation emitted from it and the vagueness surrounding the health implications of this radiation. The general public is largely uninformed or misinformed about the levels of radiation from the cell phones, charger, and cellular antennas. There are signs in elevators and trains recommending to not use cell phones in these places.

So, let's start making sense of cellular radiation.

Radio and microwave radiation

When making a call from a cell phone, the device emits electromagnetic waves that reach the closest cellular site. The site receives these waves and transmits signals (speech, photo, recording, video, and more) to a cellular site closest to the friend we called. The latter emits the electromagnetic waves, and our friend's cell phone processes them and receives the signals that we sent him. Of course, these things also work the other way around – from my friend to me.

These electromagnetic waves, also known as non-ionizing radiation, is radio and microwave radiation. Radio and microwave radiation is significantly lower than ionizing radiation, such as x-rays or radioactive radiation. It cannot break atomic and molecular bonds in living cells. As far as we know today, non-ionizing radiation is incapable of directly corrupting the genetic material inside the cell (the DNA). However, it has been proven that radio and microwave radiation can generate heat – similar to what happens in a microwave (food is heated by radiation).

Unlike the microwave, the cell phone is incapable of generating significant heat in its proximity (the head and ear), because the quantity of radiation is significantly less than that of a microwave (less than one thousandth of the quantity emitted by a microwave and usually less than that).

Confined spaces

There are situations where you are in confined quarters, such as in an elevator, a train car, or a bus. In confined spaces, cellular radiation is not only emitted and spread around but also sent back to the device. It can be visualized as a fly that enters a room through a window and can't get out. Additionally, it is more difficult for radiation from the antenna to get into confined spaces. The combination of these factors makes cellular devices emit more radiation.

The Precaution Principle

Despite the many studies on radiation, conclusive evidence on the link between exposure to radio wave radiation and cancer is yet to be found. Therefore, in 2011, the World Health Organization classified cellular radiation as potentially carcinogenic in humans. The meaning of this classification is that until conclusive evidence of the link between radio wave radiation and the risk of developing cancer is found, it is recommended to make informed use of cell phones and other devices emitting non-ionizing radiation.

The use of cell phones over many hours of the day is common, including teenagers and children. Therefore, the Israel Ministry of Health, following the World Health Organization, recommends that you adhere to the Precaution Principle. The Precaution Principle states that although there is no conclusive evidence that radiation is harmful to humans, we should be on the safe side and minimize our exposure to radiation from devices and electronics.

How to reduce exposure

  1. We will use a wired headphone or the speaker for the entire duration of the phone call. This way, we can keep our body, and mostly our head, away from the source of the radiation.
  2. We will keep cellular phone calls brief – especially children (more information about children and screens).
  3. We will prefer calling from a landline.
  4. We will send a text message whenever possible. In any event – texting and driving is strictly forbidden!
  5. We will not use the cell phone in confined places such as an elevator or a train car.
  6. If WIFI reception is weak, such as on buses, we will use the phone sparingly. Alternatively, if WIFI reception is good, we will use it and not cellular reception. Do not charge a cell phone close to your body overnight. Chargers emit radiation too.

Further reading

Information about radiation on the Ministry of Health's Website (Hebrew)
Information about non-ionizing radiation on the Ministry of Environmental Protection Website (Hebrew)
Information on types of electromagnetic radiation on the TNUDA Center website (Hebrew)
Ministry of Health recommendations regarding the use of cell phones (Hebrew)
World Health Organization recommendations regarding non-ionizing radiation in cell phones